By Blair Thomas & Co.
Directed by: Blair Thomas
At Victory Gardens Biograph Studio Theater
Three solo performances by a talented artesian.
World renowned puppeteer and Chicagoan Blair Thomas (founder of Blair Thomas & Co. / co-founder of the Redmoon Theatre) plunges into the depths of his own imagination in his latest production, Hard Headed Heart. Some casual theatergoers may be misled by the “puppet show” billing as non-legitimate street theatre or something innocent they can bring their kids to…it is neither.
Performed in the intimate Richard Christiansen Theatre, located inside the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, Hard Headed Heart is a collection of three short stories, (The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal /St. James Infirmary/The Blackbird) re-interpreted and performed by Thomas. Each story has its own separate stage scenery, all masterfully designed and constructed by Thomas himself, and it own emotional identity. The three stories follow a pattern as if Thomas would want you to start the show kicking back, and enjoying some laughs, but leaving the theatre thinking. If that is the case, he has succeeded.
Hard Headed Heart is intended for the adventurer who can let loose and appreciate some non-conventional theater ideals. Nitpickers and perfectionists may want to unwind a bit, as Thomas is not interested in hiding himself from his puppets, as more conventional puppeteers would be known to do. Going into this, one must be acquainted with the fact that the puppetry is just one part to a large body of detailed visual art and story telling. There’s your preface.
One of the many impressive characteristics about this show is that Thomas does not take the easy way out by picking common nursery rhymes or tall tales to nourish his material. Instead the viewer’s horizons may be expanded by exploring some pieces of literature and folklore that some may not be fully aware of.
As the show begins, we’re introduced to a white-faced Thomas, wiry and charismatic much like a Joel Grey emcee in Cabaret, This is your guide through the world of puppet farce and the darkness that lurks in their wooden hearts.
The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal, based off the script by the short-lived Federico Garcia Lorca, is a humorous exposition into the absurd exploits of an over-aggressive semi-evil man and his path to an arranged marriage with a hyper-sexed senortita. (Again, not for kids) With whimsical scenery and an exhausting vaudevillian type performance by Thomas, the audience is in hysterics, accepting anything that Thomas and his puppets sling off the stage.
Moving from a slapstick routine to a darker comedy, the St. James Infirmary stage rolls in. Based of the New Orleans Folk song, the St. James Infirmary is a marionette based performance focusing more on mortality and loneliness. A motorized paper scroll, with hand painted scenes runs through the back drop while Thomas transforms himself into a one-man band.
The show ends with a gentle melancholy story called The Blackbird, based on Wallace Steven’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. Four large rolling paper scrolls, controlled and unfurled with expert timing, fill the viewers’ eye with stimulating artwork, backlit with warm lamps that reveal a group of animated shadow puppets. Ben Johnson’s Amazing Grace inspired, String Quartet #4, is the perfect soundtrack for this story, with its almost saddening tempo. The Blackbird is just as much a magic show as it is a warm example of folksy story telling.
I found this to be a great introduction to a relatively unsung Chicago theatre titan. It’s hard to imagine that one man is responsible for the writing, art direction, production, musical arrangement and performing of such a distinctive show. Thomas’s painstaking detail is an affirmation of his hard work and craftsmanship. And for someone who has been mastering his craft for the better part of 20 years, Thomas gives us the chance to see what would impress a professional like himself. This is a show I would see again, however, with Thomas’s reputation for selling out shows, it may be easier said than done.
John B. Reinhardt
Date Reviewed: July 9, 2010
For full show information, check out the Hard Headed Heart page at TheatreInChicago.
At the Richard Christiansen Theatre, located inside the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago / $25 general admission / Running time approximately 75 minutes/ July 8th through August 8th, Thursdays at 8pm, Friday at 9pm, Saturdays at 6 and 9pm/ Sundays at 4pm (NOTE: Saturday July 24th will have only one 10pm showing due to the Taste of Lincoln Avenue Festival)